Culture Shock in a Cup

Back in the day when I worked for a study abroad program in China, a dear friend of mine shared a metaphor with me that I feel represents cultural adjustment and culture shock well. He displayed a cup that was filled with water and described how throughout our lives we fill this cup up with our own culture -- our own values, beliefs, and ways of doing things. However, when we travel and integrate into new cultures, we often don’t have enough room in our cups. The key is to recognize this and work on the ability to completely empty our cups when entering a new culture. Let that new culture fill us up so we can learn and absorb. Then, when we travel and enter another new culture, empty once again. Repeat and grow.

The question is, how do we become willing to empty our respective cups and let them be filled up again? The word “let” is key here. Letting a new culture in and being willing to learn unconditionally is not easy. I’m not saying that after each new cultural experience our identities have been completely transformed. I am saying that it all comes down to our attitude towards cultural acceptance, being cool with learning from the unknown, and trusting the process. Sure, it is almost impossible to completely disregard all the filters we’ve built up over the years in our respective pasts, but if we are unwilling to try, how can we expect others to accept us in return?

In today’s world, cultures are blending whether we like it or not. To return to the metaphor of the cup, when we arrive in a new culture, if our cups are completely filled, we keep what’s already in the cup and continue to fill it up to overflowing.

Welcome to culture shock. Now when I talk about culture shock, I’m referring to a certain amount of time spent in a new country/culture, say at least a semester abroad to a couple of years. We’ve seen the charts of how culture shock arcs throughout a student’s time abroad (image below), and I’m sure a lot of us have gone through it ourselves (I sure have). Even though at first culture shock can be seen as a struggle, I don’t think it is a bad thing. Sometimes we need a little punch in the gut in order to see things clearly. When our cup is overflowing with our old and new cultures, it forces us to not only feel and live questions about both cultures, but also eventually makes us prioritize which values, beliefs, and ideas, matter most to us. It forces us to take a deep breath and shift our attitude towards the whole experience -- and accept that THIS transformation is happening, whether we like it or not. Some people can’t handle it and some people thrive on it. For myself, culture shock was not that difficult as I was very excited to experience a new culture. However, where I truly struggled with it was upon my return home -- a good old punch of reverse culture shock in the gut.

Reverse culture shock can be even more difficult than initial culture shock. Sometimes when we spend a significant amount of time in a new culture, we forget how to adjust back to what we knew before, although we can never completely forget our old normality. But what we can do is view it through new filters and see what we like and don’t like. Reverse culture shock forces us to home in on what values we choose to keep across the spectrum of cultures we have experienced. Only after we have experienced a variety of cultures can we start to figure out what combinations of values and morals go well together and what do not. But, before we get to this point, we have to be willing to go through the process.

Cultures experienced, whether direct or in reverse, eventually change us. They shine light on our characters and force us to decide on who we want to become. To be able to empty our cups and let a new culture in does not happen overnight. Nor is it ever that clear cut. However, we need to make a conscious shift in attitude in order to embrace the experience. Once we begin to put this shift into practice and become more comfortable with the idea of multiple cultures defining who we are, then there is true wisdom to be had. In the end, we all hold our own cups and decide on how we choose to engage with this world.

So, fill me up another one and let’s toast to enjoying the experience (to having fun with this!)